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can just picture Bart Simpson sitting in the corner, wearing a dunce cap — and wouldn’t you know it, the Internet is full of pictures of the mischievous boy exactly the way I imagined him — complete with a scowl on his face. And if you look hard enough on Google, you’ll find equally cartoonish images of Porky Pig and Donald Trump donning dunce caps too.

A Symbol of Idiocy
For years — going back to at least the 1800’s — American and British school systems used the dunce cap as a form of punishment. “The dunce cap was used mostly to humiliate a student for not being up to speed in their lessons with other students,” according to The Victorian Historian. During that era, school administrators and teachers believed that all students learned at the same pace. If any students didn’t keep up the pace, teachers believed they were lazy. Slower learners — and even left-handed students — were frequently subject to discipline, which might have included a dunce cap.

Dunce caps were used as late as the 1950s in American schools, when they were phased out and banned in most Western schools, according to EveryThingWhat.

Dunce Caps Started With a Priest
But the pointy hats that we call dunce caps weren’t always viewed so negatively. In the old days, they were seen along the lines of a wizard’s hat — something that Gandalf the Grey or Professor Dumbledore would wear.

What we know today as a ‘dunce cap’ all began with Scottish man named John Duns Scotus — notice the spelling of his middle name — who lived in the late 13th- and early 14th Century.

Scotus was a Franciscan priest, but also was a master philosopher who studied natural theology, metaphysics, the theory of knowledge, and ethics and moral psychology, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Some sources state that Scotus was a linguist too — but since most articles about the priest point back to the same article — or willfully plagiarize it — it’s hard to say for sure.

Most references to Scotus hail the priest as a Renaissance Man who was a bit ahead of the curve in enlightenment. (The Renaissance started around 1300.) Scotus was known for creating intensely complex analytical writings — that scholars continue to debate today.

In fact, as recently as 2015, a British philosopher penned a 150-page book on Scotus that costs a whopping $150, according to a Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews commentary on the volume. (Reading the review of the book on Scotus takes quite a bit of concentration.)

Dunce Cap: A Sign of Intelligence!
But the story of the dunce cap really starts with Scotus’ studies and teachings of “a convoluted philosophical explanation for the existence of a metaphysical God, as opposed to a material ‘Man of the Sky,’” according to Atlas Obscura — the primary source of information about the priest that has been bouncing across the four corners of the Internet.

Scotus believed that wearing conical hats would increase learning because he thought that they would funnel knowledge to the wearer, reports The Straight Dope. Scotus’ students became known as Dunsmen, and wearing a pointed hat became seen as a badge of higher intelligence.

Female students in “dunce” caps pose for a photograph outside Tome Scientific Building around 1890. (Source: Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections)


Humanists Mock Men Wearing Pointy Hats
But the image of men wearing cones on their heads as brainy people would not last. To be sure, the Humanists had it in for the Dunsmen. Humanists believed in transforming an ignorant society into one that would “encourage the grandest human potentialities,” notes the Encyclopedia Britannica.

By the 1500s, the remaining Dunsmen came to be seen as “hopelessly behind the times, or just plain stupid” notes Atlas Obscura. The phrase ‘dunce,’ as a derogatory term, seems to have been firmly embedded in culture by the 1620’s. (A John Ford play in 1624 makes reference to the term ‘dunce-table.’)

Dunce Cap and Stupidity Go Hand-in-Hand
Today, no one questions the association between wearing dunce caps and lack of intelligence. In fact, Ellen DeGeneres created a bit of a stir by calling audience members on her show idiots — when they answered her trivia questions wrong — then directed them to the “idiot section” where dunce caps were placed on their heads.

And in a Little Lulu cartoon posted on YouTube, Lulu’s teacher directs her to the corner, where she wears a dunce cap, after incorrectly answering his questions about when the Pilgrims landed, when Columbus discovered America, and when Ben Franklin died. Little Lulu originally appeared as a comic strip between 1935 and 1944, though it’s unclear when the cartoon that featured a dunce cap was created.

Dunce Caps for KKK Members?
Somewhat ironically, Ku Klux Klan members wear hats that look suspiciously like dunce caps. However, according to Quora, Klansman hats are modeled on the capirotes worn by members of various Spanish penitent orders. Originally, KKK members didn’t wear pointy hats; that only came after D.W. Griffith made his notorious — and racist — masterpiece Birth of a Nation in 1915, which glorifies the KKK.

On a tight budget, Griffith borrowed the distinctive hoods that had been made for another production and adapted them for his film. Thus, Birth of a Nation also resulted in the re-birth of the Klan.

Despite the official distinction between KKK capriotes and dunce caps, the line appears to be irrelevant. A 1999 article in The Wall Street Journal about a KKK rally noted: “Hardly anyone heard what they [the Klansmen] had to say, for the men in their traditional white robes and dunce caps did not have a loudspeaker permit…”

In other words, a dunce cap by any other name is a dunce cap — whether it be worn by Bart Simpson, Little Lulu, or a Klansman.

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